There is now ‘Tinder for food’ and it could help save the environment

Two entrepreneurs from London are aiming to make the planet healthier with their app for tackling food waste

Thin Lei Win
Monday 25 December 2017 19:57
In the UK each family, on average, throws away £700 worth of food each year
In the UK each family, on average, throws away £700 worth of food each year

Too many leftovers from dinner? Vegetables forgotten in the fridge or cans gathering dust at the back of a cupboard? Instead of tossing them out, why not share them with friends and neighbours and care for the planet at the same time?

That is the premise of OLIO, a mobile phone app that is part of a wave of businesses using technology to cut waste and help the environment.

OLIO is the brainchild of two entrepreneurs from London aiming to tackle food waste, “one of the biggest problems facing humanity today”.

If that sounds sensationalist, Tessa Cook, the company’s co-founder, can rattle off a list of eye-popping statistics to back up her claim.

Globally, one-third of all food produced, worth nearly £750bn, is thrown away – and in the UK alone, an average family throws away £700 worth of food each year.

All of this is “environmentally catastrophic”, Ms Cook said. Not only does it waste land and water to produce it, but when left to rot in landfill, food waste releases methane – a greenhouse gas more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

“That whole set-up is clearly absolutely bonkers and needs to be fixed,” Ms Cook said.

And since more than half of food waste occurs at home, it also means consumers can be an important part of the solution.

An app was born

Growing up on a dairy farm in Yorkshire, Ms Cook said she learnt early on how much hard work goes into producing food.

So when removal workers told the former corporate executive to throw away the leftovers in her fridge – sweet potatoes, a cabbage and some yoghurt – while packing to move back from Geneva to London nearly three years ago, the seed of an idea grew.

She set out into the street to find someone to give the food to – but failed.

“I thought, this is perfectly delicious food. I know there is someone within 100 metres who would love it. The problem is they don’t know about it,” she recalled.

When she discovered there were no mobile apps to share food, Cook teamed up with Saasha Celestial-One, a former investment banker from America, to launch OLIO – raising £1.65m from two rounds of investor funding.

Users download OLIO on their phones, create an account and upload a picture and a short description of the food they want to give away, from bananas to fresh herbs to lactose-free baby powder.

They can contact each other via private messages to arrange for pick-ups, either at home or in a public place for the more privacy-conscious. There is also a section to exchange non-food items, such as clothes and furniture.

User ratings and complaint mechanisms prevent the system from being abused, Ms Cook said.

Closing the loop

Launched in January 2016, the app now has 322,000 registered users, mainly in the UK, and more than 400,000 food items have been shared, ranging from fresh produce to packs of pasta, juice and ready meals.

A third of the regular users who request food are from poor households, Ms Cook said.

Cafes and supermarkets, such as Pret A Manger and Sainsbury‘s, are now partnering with OLIO, with volunteers picking up leftover food to share within their communities.

OLIO and Stuffstr, an app that allows users to resell or give away unwanted items, highlight the value in goods that people might otherwise throw away.

“Those apps have made visible the kind of opportunity within all this stuff around us, and they can be really powerful,” said Joe Iles, editor-in-chief of Circulate.

The online magazine from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes the concept of the “circular economy” where raw materials and products are repeatedly reused.

For users, OLIO gives the opportunity not only to reduce waste and save money but also to try out new foods.

Marilyn Kendall, an American in her fifties who has lived in London for nearly three decades, said her shopping and disposal habits have changed.

Ms Kendall says she buys less and doesn’t "throw out food that I might have 18 months ago". She also volunteers for OLIO.

Shops and restaurants have changed their behaviour too, said Noa Bodner, another OLIO user and volunteer.

The 41-year-old London-based actress and musician said she used to collect “stupid amounts of food” from a local cafe to give away via the app. The owners have since become more judicious about how much food they prepare, she said.

“I just want to encourage people not to look down on food being passed around,” Ms Bodner said.

“You’re probably going to get stuff that is good quality, free, and doing a service to the planet.”


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